The clash of any idealism with recalcitrant reality

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

Russian “populism” (narodnichestvo, from narod, the people) began in the 1870s, Gary Saul Morson explains:

The “narodniks” dominated Russian thought for two decades, and their successors, the Socialist Revolutionaries, became the country’s most influential political party until the Bolshevik coup. The importance of Russian populism lies less in its programs than in its ethos, a guilty idealism that can teach us a lot today — not only about populism itself but also about the clash of any idealism with recalcitrant reality.

Russia’s greatest writers, painters, and composers all reflected on, if they did not participate in, what one historian called “the agony of populist art.” “Agony” is the right word to describe a movement whose greatest artists drank themselves to death, committed suicide, or went insane. Russians’ natural extremism makes the problems inherent in all idealistic movements especially visible.

Jolting from one panacea for evil to another, Russian intellectuals at last arrived at worship of “the people,” a term usually meaning the peasants, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population. Today, the word “populist” is often used as a term of abuse disparaging boorish, mindless followers of a demagogue, but “narodnik,” though originally pejorative, was soon adopted by the populists themselves to indicate their reverence for the Russian people’s innate wisdom. To argue for a policy it was common not to demonstrate its effectiveness but to show that it was supported by “the people,” as if the people could not be wrong. In Anna Karenina, everyone is shocked when Levin, Tolstoy’s hero, rejects this whole way of thinking. “That word ‘people,’” he says, “is so vague.”


Likharev [from Chekhov's "On the Road"] worked as a “barge hauler” because that horrible occupation became the populist symbol of the people’s suffering. The most famous painting of the 19th century, Ilya Repin’s heartrending Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73), depicts a group of men harnessed together to haul riverboats.

Ilya Repin Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73)

In a widely read article on contemporary Russian painting, “Apropos of the Exhibition,” Dostoyevsky explains that he anticipated a depiction of barge haulers wearing ideological “uniforms” with “the usual labels stuck to their foreheads,” but to his delight found nothing of the kind. To be sure, he opined, rags like the ones these workers wear would immediately fall off, and one of the shirts “must have accidentally fallen into a bowl where meat was being chopped for cutlets.” But the people are real. Two are almost laughing, a little soldier is concealing his attempt to fill his pipe, and none is thinking about oppression. You love these defenseless creatures, Dostoyevsky explains, and can’t help thinking that you are indeed indebted to “the people.”

Populism fed on guilt, and everything about Likharev, down to his very gestures, expressed a consciousness of guilt about something. The populist ideologists insisted that all high culture depends on wealth stolen from the common people and is therefore tainted by a sort of original sin. As Russia’s greatest autobiographer Alexander Herzen lamented, “All our education, our literary and scientific development, our love of beauty, our occupations, presuppose an environment constantly swept and tended by others… somebody’s labor is essential in order to provide us with the leisure necessary for our mental development.” Shame and guilt over unearned privilege shaped a generation of the “repentant nobleman.” Pyotr Lavrov’s Historical Letters (1868-69), the populist bible, put it this way: “Mankind has paid dearly so that a few thinkers sitting in their studies could discuss its progress.”

Perhaps high culture should be abolished altogether? This urgent question came to be called “the justification of culture,” with many writers contending that justification was impossible. Since the symbol of Russian culture was Pushkin, critics, most notably the nihilist Dmitri Pisarev, insisted that any pair of boots is worth more than all of Pushkin’s verse.


The populist argument about “the justification of culture” became part of what philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev called “the Russian Idea” and, so far as I know, marks Russian culture as unique. (To be sure, it is common today to convict the Western tradition as the product of imperialism and dead white males, but that is still different from rejecting high culture per se.)


The populists’ efforts to “go to the people” failed utterly. Far from embracing their revolutionary ideology, the peasants turned their worshipers in to the police. In despair, many populists—but not Garshin or Uspensky—established the Russian terrorist movement. If Russian history demonstrates anything, it is that nothing causes more evil than the attempt to abolish it altogether. The scarlet flower blooms in the Gulag.

To this day the idea persists that the Russian people, especially the simple rural ones, somehow carry the moral solution to all the world’s ills. Under what Dostoyevsky called their “alluvial barbarism” lies the purest spirituality. For Russians, faith in the people’s virtue is equaled only by another belief: in the moral glory of Russian literature. That belief is warranted.


  1. Sam J. says:

    There haven’t been a lot of comments on this series on Russian terrorism and populism. I don’t have anything to add but that they are interesting and entertaining.

    I will leave you with a few pictures of Soviet style Brutalism monuments and building which is fantastic.

    It may seem off topic but it’s not at all if you read a little about the Soviets dreams about housing, Brutalism, simplistic, non-adorned building structure for living was like porn to the Soviets. HOUSING for the PEOPLE! They ate this stuff up. Yes I know it may be a little weird but the first thing that popped into my head when you said Russian Populism was Brutalist Architecture.

    Now brutalism can be a nightmare when they turn the building into an unusable machine but done right, it’s most pleasant. The Soviets went from a LOT of their people living in tents and shacks to massive amounts of shared kitchen, mass apartments. Where they fell down was these were built to be temporary. They were a great achievement where they were coming from but as soon as possible the plan was to build more with a more western style built in kitchen for each family but…finances intervened and a lot of these never got built.–russian-constructivism-architecture-brutal-architecture.jpg–samara-brutalism.jpg–holocaust-victims-brutalism.jpg

  2. CVLR says:


    There are one or two which elicited a reaction sort of like, “oh hey, neat”, at least at first. But I look a little longer and they all become stone-cold fugly. It would be great if we could have a renaissance of Roman-style architecture with stone enhanced by modern materials, I think.

  3. Sam J. says:

    I agree that most are ugly. I like the idea of low cost housing. I think it could be done and maybe with a little style added in. Some of the brutalism stuff really looks good to me though. I’m not sure why. One of the more successful one was “Habitat 67″ in Montreal. The houses are very livable and while built to be low cost the rents are higher than average because they are built in such a way that everyone gets a good amount of space and light compared to a normal apartment which is just boxes. These were mass produced and stacked on each other.

    See how most everyone has a nice little patio. I think there are some green common areas also.

    Of course it doesn’t compare to one of my all time favorite buildings. The Temple of Hera in Italy.

  4. CVLR says:


    I was thinking of just that building.

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